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Minor League Depth — Pitching, Part 2 (Upper Level Relievers)

Justin Wilson is emerging as a power relief option from the left side

Bullpens don’t work quite the same way in the minors as they do in the majors. Most teams, including the Pirates, prefer to develop their pitching prospects as starters. The Pirates won’t normally move a pitcher to the bullpen until it becomes clear that starting isn’t in the cards for that pitcher, either due to health concerns or other reasons. This can happen with some pitchers, like Diego Moreno, in the low minors and others, like Bryan Morris and possibly Justin Wilson, in the upper minors. Almost no minor league roster has 10+ established pitching prospects, though, so the bullpen usually will be made up, in whole or in part, of organizational pitchers and others who probably don’t have a strong chance of reaching the majors. A lot of minor league relievers—and this is decidedly true in the Pirates’ system—have some ability, like good velocity or a good slider, but need to find a more effective secondary pitch or improve their command or make some other adjustment to become prospects. What follows is a look at the pitchers who’ll probably be in the bullpens with the Pirates’ top three affiliates in 2012.

Parentheses indicate that there’s a reasonable chance the player won’t start at that level. LHPs are marked with an asterisk (*).

Indianapolis (AAA)

Justin Wilson*, Bryan Morris, (Dan Moskos*), Jared Hughes, Aaron Poreda*, Ryota Igarashi, Logan Kensing, Mike Crotta, Tim Wood, Kris Johnson*

The Indianapolis bullpen in 2012 figures to have a more-interesting-than-usual mix of prospects and veteran depth. The most prominent of the prospects will be Wilson and Morris, both of whom went into 2011 among the team’s top starting prospects, but moved to the bullpen due to command issues. Both could still return to starting, but they’ll probably have to make their way to the majors initially as relievers. Morris will be in his last option year and hasn’t yet pitched above AA, so he’ll have to make quick progress. Moskos probably has an outside shot at the Pirates’ bullpen in April, due to Clint Hurdle’s stated preference for having two lefties, but he was unimpressive in 2011 after a strong 2010. Hughes saw a sudden improvement in his stuff when he moved to the pen in mid-2011 and will almost certainly return to the majors at some point in 2012. Crotta will be trying to get back on track after elbow problems wrecked his 2011 season.

All of the veterans whom the Pirates acquired for 2012 present significant upsides, albeit limited odds of reaching them. Poreda was once one of the top LHP prospects in the minors, but his control mysteriously disappeared when he was traded from the White Sox to the Padres. Igarashi was once the hardest thrower in Japan, but lost velocity after Tommy John surgery and struggled with his command after signing with the Mets.  Kensing has always had good velocity and an ability to miss bats, but has struggled with control problems and numerous arm injuries. Wood showed excellent stuff in AAA with the Pirates last year but couldn’t throw strikes in the majors. Johnson is a former supplemental first round pick of the Red Sox who failed as a starter, but could do better in relief.

Altoona (AA)

Duke Welker, Tim Alderson, Diego Moreno, Eliecer Cardenas, Jose Diaz, (Tyler Cox*), (Jhonathan Ramos*), (Brian Leach), (Ryan Beckman), Mike Dubee, Noah Krol, Kyle Cofield

Altoona will have an interesting mix of pitchers with some ability who mostly are looking to take that one big step forward. The most prominent are probably Alderson, Welker, Moreno and Cardenas. Alderson is trying to resurrect his former top prospect status in the bullpen. He had a strong first half in 2011 but struggled badly late in the season, so he should return to AA. Welker has a mid- to upper-90s fastball that he’s made strides in controlling over the last two years, earning a spot on the 40-man roster. Moreno has had trouble adapting to AA despite an upper-90s fastball and good control, and surprisingly wasn’t taken in the Rule 5 draft. Cardenas came from the Braves for Matt Diaz and is coming off a big season in high A, although he had a very difficult time in a few appearances in AA.

Cox, Ramos, Leach and Beckman will have to earn promotions from Bradenton. Cox has done well since moving to relief, but missed part of 2011. Ramos has been used as a swing man and appears headed to be an organizational pitcher, but he was very effective in relief and against left-handed batters. He and Cox could both have potential as LOOGYs. Beckman is a sidearm pitcher who throws a bit harder than most pitchers of that type (low-90s). He had a strong second half at Bradenton in 2011. Leach opened 2011 in AA but was demoted due to control problems, which continued to trouble him at Bradenton.

Of the veterans who figure to be at Altoona, Diaz is the most interesting. He’s listed at 6’4”, 300, which may be understated, and throws in the mid- to upper-90s. He’ll probably be the Curve’s closer, but it’s hard to say whether he has a realistic chance of going much farther. Dubee has pitched well for Altoona for two and a half years now, but hasn’t gotten more than a token chance in AAA. The Pirates might release him. Krol was the Curve’s closer last year and didn’t pitch well. He also could be a candidate for release. Cofield is a sinkerball pitcher who was considered a good prospect with the Braves, but who ran into elbow and control problems. The Pirates might try to help him work his way back to starting.

Bradenton (High A)

Victor Black, Jason Townsend, Casey Sadler, (Tyler Cox*), (Jhonathan Ramos*), (Brian Leach), (Ryan Beckman), Eliecer Navarro*, Porfirio Lopez*, Jason Erickson, (Kevin Decker), (Zach Foster)

The Bradenton bullpen could be quite crowded, especially since some erstwhile starters, like Jeff Inman, could get pushed to relief. The team should have at least three relievers who’ve shown significant potential in Black, Townsend and Sadler. Black has the potential to be a late-inning reliever in the majors if he can stay healthy. Townsend has thrown in the upper-90s. His velocity wasn’t at that level in 2011, but he still had a good season with West Virginia. Sadler is a sidearm pitcher who had a breakout second half in 2011 at West Virginia, when he was almost unhittable against right-handed batters.

The rest of the Bradenton bullpen will depend to some extent on which pitchers don’t make the AA roster. Two who will probably return to Bradenton after spending about half of 2011 there are Navarro and Lopez. They’re both small lefties who pitched well at West Virginia but not at Bradenton, and both will have to take a step forward to avoid the organizational pitcher tag. Erickson is an organizational pitcher who’s been used as a swing man. He pitched decently for Bradenton in 2011 and will probably return there in 2012. Foster is another sidearm pitcher who probably is an organizational reliever. He spent the second half of 2011 at Bradenton and walked as many as he struck out. Decker pitched fairly well in long relief for West Virginia in 2011. All of these pitchers will face a lot of competition for jobs.

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WTM

Wilbur Miller joined the site in July 2010. He has long been known for his excellent Player Profiles, which he brought to the site in February 2011, combining them with the existing Pirates Prospects Player Pages. Wilbur maintains the player pages section of the site, and provides regular articles to the main portion of the site, including a weekly Prospects Trend piece, featuring the best and worst prospects from the previous week.

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